DID THE EASTER JESUS ‘APPEAR’ AND ‘DISAPPEAR’ IN A LITERAL SENSE OF THESE WORDS?
Updated: Mar 26
In Perth, Western Australia where I live, there has been a recent discussion of the limits of religious language. A question has been raised about whether the Easter Jesus may be said to have “appeared” and “disappeared” in a purely literal sense of those words. I am of the view
that, as in the case of attempted descriptions of God and the acts of God generally, a literal use of language in reference to the raising of Jesus from the dead by God, and in reference to God’s revealing of this mystery to the first witnesses, is not possible. This is for the following
1. While a person might be said, in purely literal terms, to “appear” before a Magistrate, having come into court from somewhere else in the world, and, on the other hand, while there are many people who quite literally “disappear” each year, and hence are found in police lists of “missing persons,” I think that the resurrection involves something entirely different. Literal appearances and disappearances are necessarily “of a kind” that can be compared, but the resurrection appearances involve something incomparably different – something transcendent and entirely unique. This admittedly makes them difficult to talk about, but it certainly means they are not like ordinary or mundane appearances and disappearances of the kind that can be spoken of in a purely literal way.
In other words, it is because the appearing and disappearing of the Raised Christ is unique to his new highly exalted heavenly status (Philippians 2: 9–11), that his resurrection is beyond literal specification. Indeed, it is an ineffable mystery of God that is by definition “beyond words.” St Paul thus shows us a “mystery” (I Cor 15: 51. He shows but he does not tell – at least not in literal, matter-of-fact, or prosaic, language. He makes do with the kerygmatic summaries without resort to narratives of appearances, and is then obliged to rely on metaphor (ie the seed planted in the ground, which does not just pop back as a refurbished seed, but triggers the miracle of genuinely new life).
2. I am a bit surprised that some are prepared to venture that Christ appeared literally “in the flesh” to the original disciples and apparently quite differently as a “projection” to St Paul whose experience is described in terms of a light and a voice. However, Paul actually lists his Easter experience along with the others in I Cor 15, using the same word (ophthe/appeared), as though there were no difference at all. Indeed, his claim to be an apostle with a status equal to the others (I Cor 9.1) is undone if a differentiation is introduced. This is not to mention the problematic notion that Paul’s experience can be spoken of as a “projection” (which sounds suspiciously like the subject vision hypothesis of D F Strauss in the nineteenth-century). Luke’s three accounts of Paul’s experience (in Acts 9, 22, and 29) , while being significantly different with respect to who saw and heard what, at least affirms the objectivity of the experience in a way that is entirely in accord with Paul’s own account of things, which is far from being a mere “projection.”
3. Some seem to want to think of the first Easter appearances as though Jesus was simply “there” to be scrutinized. But the initiative is actually divine. The Raised Christ is “revealed,” not to everyone who happened to be in the vicinity but to selected witnesses, and some freely came to faith but others did not (as in Matthew 28:17). The Raised Christ was not just “there’ to be scriutinized by anybody who happened to be there, but was revealed to people of faith. The contemporary theology of the resurrection regularly points out that the raised and glorified Christ was revealed “from heaven” in the Easter Christophanies in a way that is akin to the way God is said to have “appeared” to Abraham in the Theophanies of the Old Testament, once again using the same word (ophthe). There is a sense in which, for this reason, they therefore defy clear and distinct, matter-of-fact, literal specification. It is not insignificant that the first Gospel has no appearance narrative at all, and in Matthew’s mountain top tableau appearance the Raised Christ appeared “from heaven” (claiming all authority in heaven and on earth), and in a way that did not compel assent, for “some doubted” – Matthew 28:17). It is interesting that when Matthew says (in Matthew 28:18) that the Raised Jesus "came" or "drew near" to the first witnesses on this mountain top, he uses the same word of the angels who "drew near" and ministered to Jesus in Matthew 4.11. This suggests a coming or drawing near or revelatory appearance "from heaven." Elsewhere in the tradition St Paul speaks of the resurrection body as a “spiritual body” of an essentially heavenly (or celestial) kind; far from just being an earthly or “fleshly” body restored to this world, it is a body of a transcendent, non-material and revelatory kind, appropriate to the new heavenly and immortal order to which Jesus had gone. There is certainly no suggestion that Jesus literally appeared “in the flesh” in the earliest stratum of the New Testament witness – not in Paul, but not in Mark, and not in Matthew either.
4. The fact that the appearances cannot be literally described in the manner of ordinary items of cognition in this physical world, explains why the New Testament witnesses after Paul, and especially in the later Gospels of John and Luke (two generations after Paul), wrestle to express the Easter experiences in a rich variety of images and theologically pregnant representations. Indeed, the most alluring details even of the later stories of John and Luke point to “something more” than just a restoration of a material and fleshly kind that might be literally and mater-of-factly described. Certainly, even these later Gospel narrative traditions of appearances behind locked doors and mysterious disappearances (of John 20 and Luke 24) do not come bearing a label which says “Must be understood purely literally”. On the contrary, given that the literal meaning of the word “resurrection” in the original New Testament Greek connotes simply a “standing up again,” in the specific case of Jesus’ resurrection, it was not just a mere “standing up again” because Jesus body was radically transformed in the process of putting on immortality; unlike a resuscitated body be would never die again. Clearly, it was not that he just literally “stood up again.” To deny the God-given transcendental qualities of the Resurrected body of Jesus and simply to assume that it was a reality that can be talked about in literal language would not only be entirely arbitrary, but plays right into the hands of those who are wedded to thinking in reductionist terms of Jesus’ merely physical or even “fleshly” resuscitation and restoration to this world of material and physical things. After all, that is what a mere “standing up again’ would be.
5. Finally, I note that, by contrast with the transcendental aspect of the biblical tradition, some Anglicans say that they believe in a literal resurrection, apparently even involving a going of Jesus into heaven with “flesh and bones,” and think this is justified by appealing, not to Scripture, but to Article IV of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles. However, a literal reading of this Article begs the very question of whether Jesus’ body was radically transformed. Certainly, this Article does not say that Jesus’ body was not transformed. In interpreting this Article, we have to ask whether it was transformed not only in the interests of achieving “the perfection of Man’s nature” of which the Article itself speaks, but to make it appropriate to a radically new heavenly existence.
6. In a pre-critical age some (eg apparently Tertulian, by contrast with Origen and Gregory of Nyssa who took the opposite view) may have imagined that Jesus went literally with physically untransformed flesh and bones into a heaven understood as a kind of extension of this material world. Surely Article IV has to be interpreted by us, however, not in relation to Tertullian, but in relation to other statements both of The Book of Common Prayer itself to which the Article is appended, and, above all, the statements of the primary authority of Scripture. Just as soon as a bodily transformation was involved in preparing Jesus for his uniquely new heavenly status, it is removed from the arena of literal and prosaic descriptive discourse. On the other hand, if Jesus body was transformed, as you seem prepared to admit, and if we think of Jesus materializing and de-materializing behind closed and locked doors as a possibility because of this bodily transformation, then we are clearly no longer speaking of Jesus’ “flesh” in any ordinary or literal sense of the word. Human flesh, if “flesh” is literally understood, does not ordinarily materialize and de-materialize. So some care has to be exercised by Anglicans in relation to Article IV.
7. This is why instead of thinking of resurrection in terms of the restoration of physical flesh and bones and of these being taken literally into heaven, others of us prefer to follow St Paul in declaring that “flesh and blood” (and bones), “cannot inherit the Kingdom of God’ for “the perishable does not inherit the imperishable” (I Cor. 15: 50).
8. Finally, recent Western Australian experience shows that it is apparently tempting to use the terms “body “ and “flesh” as though these terms were synonymous. Paul is careful to distinguish between them. Hence, he affirms the resurrection of the body, but denies that flesh and blood can enter the Kingdom of God. in the process of compiling the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in 1549, Thomas Cranmer changed (it seems quite deliberately) the received (Tertullian influenced) Western formula that expressed belief in the “resurrection of the flesh” to belief in “resurrection of the body” for this Biblical reason. This brought it Into line with the Eastern emphasis on the “resurrection of the dead” or “resurrection of the body.”
9. Certainly, following St Paul, the orthodox Christian dogma is not belief in the “resurrection of the flesh” but in the “resurrection of the Body.” There is a world of difference.